NIGHTS AT THE AUTO YARD by Eric J. Bandel
He lives in a brick house beside a vacant lot with his father and three Mexican tenants. The boy is nine years old. His hair is long. He wears a blue work jacket that once belonged to an Uncle on his mother’s side. It hangs to his knees. The zipper is gone and the sleeves have been cut mid-arm. He seldom wanders beyond the lot. He has never traveled more than six miles from his bedroom. And when he does go out, the coat goes with him.
The idea about the bugs he gets from a kid from the black end of town called Hudson Howard. This Hudson would catch fireflies and stuff the bodies into a glass jar shaped like a penguin and painted pink. He would then place a cork in a hole to the bottom and set the jar atop a dirt mound to the rear of the Auto yard. In the warm June dark, at twenty cents a head the children would gather weekly to witness the coming and going of the light. It was different somehow than seeing the flies in mid-air. The children knew this. And for a while it was magic as the torso of the penguin burned with a pulsing illumination until all that remained was a single captive flicker. There was absolute quiet as the glass went dark and the last fly fell. And it was at this time that Hudson Howard would appear from behind the old cedar wearing a paper hat and a table cloth for a cape, collect his jar and his soup can full of dimes, take a bow and run like hell.
These were nights of perfect summer; of unwashed hands and root beer. And then came August. And there was no Hudson Howard. They said his father had found work up north. And so he was gone. Gone with his family and all they owned in a grey van. Gone from Dakota avenue. The boy had heard this from Mr. George, an old man who spent his days wandering the town and his nights beneath the Owl Pass Bridge. He ate what he found and he slept in a box but he was always quick to know when someone in town had pulled up stakes.
There was confusion at the auto yard that first week. Children sat with untied shoes and some with no shoes at all waiting for the show to begin. The boy was crouched with his left shoulder to the mesh of the outer fence. He knew the truth. There would be no penguin this night. And it was there in the heat beneath the arc light that a thought began to form. He could see his own shadow and the cloak-like outline of the oversized coat. And it became clear that all that was needed was a new Hudson Howard; someone else to wear the cape. And so he climbed the fence and told the kids to return the following week for a bigger show under new management.
The next morning he went looking for a jar; a jar far from ordinary. He wanted something large. Something wonderful. He had two dollars and eighteen cents. The boy figured he could pay off the difference in work. He had done this before. He tried the pharmacy on 9th and all the rooms in the Oswald scrap shed. He saw no jars of interest. Mr. Oswald came from behind the counter with stained lips and a pinched face.
“You need a new jacket.”
The boy looked away. “No I don’t.”
He searched until nightfall and remained empty handed. With the sun gone he walked the rails home and saw Mr. George emerge from the woods rolling a car tire and trying to keep his pants up at the same time. George raised his head and waved with a brown smile. And when he did he lost the pants and the tire kept moving, neither of which bothered him. The boy walked on.
The majority of the week he spent in the weeds of the vacant lot with a sour stomach. He couldn’t sleep. His head had become host to an endless parade of jars in the shape of wildlife. Time was closing in. He promised a big show. And he had nothing.
It was Sunday. He took a bath. And reaching for the soap he was met once again with his own shadow. Like a second self, leading him on, telling him things. With his finger to the wall he traced the outline of a small protruding belly; the belly of a boy, not of a penguin. But it was pink and it was available. And it was all that he had.
He awoke fully dressed. The day had come. In the hallway closet hung a flashlight which he placed in a pillow case alongside a worn red blanket and a can of silver paint. In the pocket of his coat he had a steak knife, a tin of black shoe polish and a torn section of newsprint. He left the house and pulled an empty cereal box from a neighboring trash can before entering the lot where he set to work. He fashioned a cape from the blanket with the knife and applied three layers of paint to the box which he had cut horizontally and taped back together to create a pointy hat of silver and black. He wrapped the newsprint to the front of the flashlight and applied the polish before carefully scratching four separate holes in the paper with the tip of a nail. He spread his work on the gravel before him. And he was pleased. He would catch the bugs when night fell. But for now he had all the necessaries to pull it off. He was missing one thing only; a partner. And two hours later he found one.
He entered the Auto yard from the rear in full costume with a sandwich bag containing four lightning bugs and a small can to hold the price of admission. He took his place and waited for dark.
The children began to arrive. And what they saw when got there was a new master of ceremonies wrapped in a red blanket perched upon the mound once reserved for the magic penguin. They formed a line and paid the fare. The boy remained perfectly still with the cape gathered around his neck. When all had been seated he called for attention and spread his arms to reveal chest and stomach. He wore only his coat and pants. With all eyes upon him he ate the flies one by one. The children were moved. The children were ready. He told those gathered to watch his stomach very closely. And soon they saw a flicker of light, and then three, and then nothing until the appearance of two that were lower and a single flash once again near the left rib. They knew what they saw. They were right there. They saw the coming and going of the light.
Far above their heads Mr. George sat straddling a limb in the old cedar with leaves and branches taped to his shirt for camouflage. He held his breath and did exactly as he was told, running a calloused thumb over the protective glass of the flashlight where tiny holes against polished paper would give the illusion of living bugs to the inside of a human stomach. And as the boy stood with open arms to the sound of little hands clapping he thought only of the can at his feet. And what he could buy with the money. And he knew for certain that it would not be a jacket. And it would not be a jar.
Eric J. Bandel is a Short Order cook. He was raised in the confines of a small farming community in Northern New Jersey. He lives and works in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. He is 35 years old. (I know him well and while he is all those things, he is so very much more.)